Thursday, July 30, 2009

We are Not Looking for the Same Things

If you were to stumble across my Goodreads profile you might mistake me for a precocious 10-year-old. That would most likely be the median age of the target audience of the books on my virtual bookshelves.

Do I feel sheepish, shamefaced, or chagrined at having my childish reading exposed to the public at large? -- Not at all. Just because a book is intended for a young audience does not automatically make it simple. I find there is just as much craft and complexity in plenty of works meant for younger readers. I was, however, reminded quite abruptly at the end of the past school year that my students and I are not always looking for the same satisfaction in our reading experience. While I delight in layered and complex characters, they just want to spend time with someone with the gumption to get the job done, or failing fortitude, someone who will make them laugh. While I delight in a delicious turn of phrase, and lovely imagery, my young charges want action, plot, and action.

As mentioned, I was awkwardly reminded of this truth at the end of the past school year. I like to save the final weeks of classes to indulge myself in reading longer books to my students. This is self-serving in several ways. It allows me to share some of my favorite characters at length, rather than in brief book-talks. Frankly it negates coming up with lesson plans when I am in the thick of inventory. It can also, when I throw caution to the wind, allow me to crack open a title cold and dive in. Last year’s experiment included many a book that had been winking enticingly from the shelves, flirting with me in an effort to be included on my Goodreads page. Some experiments worked out better than others.

Do I recommend tethering yourself and your students, for up to five weeks, to a book you know little about? Maybe, maybe not. It can work out in a sumptuously satisfying manner or be a total train wreck.

As I see up to six classes in each grade I didn’t want to bore myself by reading the same book to each class in a grade, so I mixed it up a bit by reading two or three different titles per grade. When it came to third grade I chose two different books that had been sitting on the shelves with little or no contact with me or any other potential readers to date. I had purchased both books after reading reviews, one starred, one not.

The first book was Haven Kimmel’s, Kaline Klattermaster's Tree House. I should never, ever, have tried to read this tricky little snippet cold. Third-grade Kaline is the offspring of an alphabet soup of dysfunctional parenting. With an ADHD mother and an OCD father, little Kaline, is not only saddled with a smattering of both parents acronyms, but also shows a tendency to light somewhere on the autism spectrum. This character was so nuanced that it would have taken a skilled reader several practice runs to get him to come across right. Not to mention that a good portion of what Kaline is relating as reality to the reader, is in fact occurring only in his delightfully muddled little head. Guess what? – your average third-grader is not going to hold still for a tale about quirkily little guy coming to terms with his parents separation by creating a fantastical world with ready-made older brothers and lots of puppies. There were moments when I had them, but mostly they were confused by a plot that may or may not have been happening, to a character who may or may not have been reliable in the telling of his story.

On the other hand, I adored this book. Kaline was fascinating, and the situations he found himself in were tender, funny, and illuminating in an understated way. I’m not sure which children are the audience for this book. I do believe there are young readers out there who could appreciate Kaline and even empathizes with him. A really big mistake I made was trying to pawn this off on third-graders. Even though Kaline is in third-grade, the book is much too complicated for the average 9-year-old.

The other book I chose for third-grade was Star Jumper: Journal of a Cardboard Genius, the first of series that had been sitting neglected on the shelf from the time it was purchased. It was written by Frank Asch the author of those delightful little picture books starring the earnest brown bear. In Star Jumper, Alex, the titled Cardboard genius, is able to invent anything he can dream up with a few math equations and a smattering of odds and ends found in bins under his bed or his father’s garage, and of course the requisite cardboard boxes. It is the work of an afternoon for Alex to create a space vehicle which will allow him to achieve his life’s goal of escaping his annoying younger brother Jonathon. Through the course of the tale Alex does run into an obstacle or two, but with his brain power and a few paper clips they are easily allied. Did this outlandish tale of youthful fortitude connect with my third-graders? – you bet it did! Before the first class to hear its opening chapters had left the library, the other two books in the series where scooped up by triumphant readers. Will I grab my chance over the summer to read through end of the series in order to discover what other magnificent feats of advanced technology Alex is able to conquer? – um, I think I’ll pass. Will I purchase any subsequent books that Mr. Asch may write for the series? – Oh, you betcha!

Does this mean that children cannot appreciate a higher quality of writing that is out there waiting for them? Not necessarily, but that is an issue for another blog post.

Does that mean that there are no books that both my students and I can enjoy simultaneously? Heck no, here are a couple of little dynamos that I used for read-alouds in second grade. They had both me, and my students, eager for our weekly reading session. Say hello to Clementine and Alvin Ho.